Vanity Fair Trump White House
“You Can’t Go Any Lower”: Inside the West Wing, Trump Is Apoplectic as Allies Fear Impeachment
After Monday’s indictments, the president blamed Jared Kushner in a call to Steve Bannon, while others are urging him to take off the gloves with Robert Mueller.
Gabriel Sherman November 1, 2017
US-POLITICS-TRUMP-hive.jpg US President Donald Trump speaks alongside his daughter, Ivanka Trump (L) and her husband, Senior White House Adviser Jared Kushner (R) during a Cabinet Meeting in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington, DC, October 16, 2017. By SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images.
Until now, Robert Mueller has haunted Donald Trump’s White House as a hovering, mostly unseen menace. But by securing indictments of Paul Manafort and Rick Gates, and a surprise guilty plea from foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos, Mueller announced loudly that the Russia investigation poses an existential threat to the president. “Here’s what Manafort’s indictment tells me: Mueller is going to go over every financial dealing of Jared Kushner and the Trump Organization,” said former Trump campaign aide Sam Nunberg. “Trump is at 33 percent in Gallup. You can’t go any lower. He’s fucked.”
The first charges in the Mueller probe have kindled talk of what the endgame for Trump looks like, according to conversations with a half-dozen advisers and friends of the president. For the first time since the investigation began, the prospect of impeachment is being considered as a realistic outcome and not just a liberal fever dream. According to a source, advisers in the West Wing are on edge and doing whatever they can not to be ensnared. One person close to Dina Powell and Gary Cohn said they’re making sure to leave rooms if the subject of Russia comes up.
The consensus among the advisers I spoke to is that Trump faces few good options to thwart Mueller. For one, firing Mueller would cross a red line, analogous to Nixon’s firing of Archibald Cox during Watergate, pushing establishment Republicans to entertain the possibility of impeachment. “His options are limited, and his instinct is to come out swinging, which won’t help things,” said a prominent Republican close to the White House.
Trump, meanwhile, has reacted to the deteriorating situation by lashing out on Twitter and venting in private to friends. He’s frustrated that the investigation seems to have no end in sight. “Trump wants to be critical of Mueller,” one person who’s been briefed on Trump’s thinking says. “He thinks it’s unfair criticism. Clinton hasn’t gotten anything like this. And what about Tony Podesta? Trump is like, When is that going to end?”
According to two sources, Trump has complained to advisers about his legal team for letting the Mueller probe progress this far. Speaking to Steve Bannon on Tuesday, Trump blamed Jared Kushner for his role in decisions, specifically the firings of Mike Flynn and James Comey, that led to Mueller’s appointment, according to a source briefed on the call.
When Roger Stone recently told Trump that Kushner was giving him bad political advice, Trump agreed, according to someone familiar with the conversation. “Jared is the worst political adviser in the White House in modern history,” Nunberg said. “I’m only saying publicly what everyone says behind the scenes at Fox News, in conservative media, and the Senate and Congress.” (The White House didn’t respond to a request for comment by deadline.)
As Mueller moves to interview West Wing aides in the coming days, advisers are lobbying for Trump to consider a range of stratagems to neutralize Mueller, from conciliation to a declaration of all-out war. One Republican explained Trump’s best chance for survival is to get his poll numbers up. Trump’s lawyer Ty Cobb has been advocating the view that playing ball will lead to a quick resolution (Cobb did not respond to a request for comment).
But these soft-power approaches are being criticized by Trump allies including Steve Bannon and Roger Stone, who both believe establishment Republicans are waiting for a chance to impeach Trump. “The establishment has proven time and time again they will fuck Trump over,” a Bannon ally told me.
In a series of phone calls with Trump on Monday and Tuesday, Bannon told the president to shake up the legal team by installing an aggressive lawyer above Cobb, according to two sources briefed on the call. Bannon has also discussed ways to pressure Congress to defund Mueller’s investigation or limit its scope. “Mueller shouldn’t be allowed to be a clean shot on goal,” a Bannon confidant told me. “He must be contested and checked. Right now he has unchecked power.”
Bannon’s sense of urgency is being fueled by his belief that Trump’s hold on power is slipping. The collapse of Obamacare repeal, and the dimming chances that tax reform will pass soon—many Trump allies are deeply pessimistic about its prospects—have created the political climate for establishment Republicans to turn on Trump. Two weeks ago, according to a source, Bannon did a spitball analysis of the Cabinet to see which members would remain loyal to Trump in the event the 25th Amendment were invoked, thereby triggering a vote to remove the president from office. Bannon recently told people he’s not sure if Trump would survive such a vote. “One thing Steve wants Trump to do is take this more seriously,” the Bannon confidant told me. “Stop joking around. Stop tweeting.”
Roger Stone believes defunding Mueller isn’t enough. Instead, Stone wants Trump to call for a special prosecutor to investigate Hillary Clinton’s role in approving the controversial Uranium One deal that’s been a locus of rightwing hysteria (the transaction involved a Russian state-owned energy firm acquiring a Canadian mining company that controlled a large subset of the uranium in the United States). It’s a bit of a bank shot, but as Stone described it, a special prosecutor looking into Uranium One would also have to investigate the F.B.I.’s role in approving the deal, thereby making Mueller—who was in charge of the bureau at the time—a target. Stone’s choice for a special prosecutor: Rudy Giuliani law colleague Marc Mukasey or Fox News pundit Andrew Napolitano. “You would immediately have to inform Mueller, Comey, and [Deputy Attorney General] Rod Rosenstein that they are under federal investigation,” Stone said. “Trump can’t afford to fire Mueller politically. But this pushes him aside.”